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Phil’s story

Planetary scientist Phil Bland loves meteorites.

“These incredible rocks from space are basically free sample-return missions from hundreds of different asteroids,” he says.

Studying asteroids helps us unlock the secrets of the universe. That’s why Phil has devoted most of his career to hunting them down in the Australian desert. He is the driving force behind the Desert Fireball Network (DFN), a network of automated observatories spread across the outback. If the telescopes detect a meteor, Phil’s team can work out where it landed and go look for it.

But scientific research is full of surprises. It turns out that the network could also be useful for tracking objects in orbit around the Earth. This process, called space situational awareness (SSA), is important for tracking the location of satellites and preventing collisions.

Phil had been talking to a colleague about upgrading the network so that it could also identify transient astronomical events, like when a star goes supernova. “He kept talking about the ‘near-field fog’. What he meant was satellites,” Phil says.

It takes a lot of work for astronomers to identify and remove satellites from their datasets so they aren’t confused for stars. “But the thing that astronomers are trying to delete is something that a lot of other people are interested in.”

Phil created a partnership between Curtin University and Lockheed Martin Space to develop the idea further. The project, called FireOPAL, has the potential to track 90% of the satellite catalogue every 12 hours if rolled out globally.

This is much more frequently than current SSA systems, which are not always accurate. If a satellite drifts off course, its new position won’t be captured until the next update.

“I’m really proud of it,” says Phil. “It’s an Australian system that, in many ways, can do things better than anything else that’s out there in the world.”

And the best bit? “The FireOPAL system is also a really great astronomical transient detector!”

Phil’s journey

  • Phil studied a Bachelor of Science (Geology) at the University of Manchester, graduating with honours in 1991.
  • He found a role as Curator of Meteorites at the Open University in the UK. While working there, he studied his PhD on the weathering of meteorites part time.
  • Phil completed his PhD in 1994 and stayed with the Open University as a researcher for a few more years.
  • He then spent a year in Perth working at the Western Australian Museum. This was funded by a Royal Society Overseas Research Fellowship.
  • In 1998 Phil returned to the UK. Over the next decade he worked as a research fellow at a number of institutions.
  • From 2006 to 2012, Phil was the Director of the Impacts and Astromaterials Research Centre at Imperial College London.
  • In 2006, the asteroid ‘1981 EW21’ was renamed ‘(6580) PhilBland’ in recognition of his contributions to planetary science.
  • Phil and his family moved to Perth in 2012, where he joined Curtin University as a Professor of Planetary Science. In 2018 he became the Director of Curtin’s Space Science and Technology Centre.
  • In 2015, Phil travelled to NASA Ames to sign an agreement that would allow Australia to become part of NASA’s Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute. SSERVI focuses on science that enables exploration, and is a key element of Artemis. Curtin University is the formal representative of the Australian planetary science community to NASA.
  • In 2016, Phil went to Cape Canaveral, Florida, to witness the launch of NASA’s OSIRIS-Rex. Phil is a member of the Mission Sample Science team. He will be among the first to analyse samples from the asteroid Bennu when OSIRIS-Rex returns to Earth in 2023.
  • Phil won the Scientist of the Year Award at the Western Australian Premier’s Science Awards in 2019.
  • He has also been the Director of the Desert Fireball Network since its inception.